The English at Home by Bill Brandt

By Narain Jashanmal

First published in 1936.

The introduction is touchingly anachronistic, out of touch with today’s social mores. It is a first person account by critic and essayist Raymond Mortimer, an Englishman coming home after some time abroad. He draws a parallel with Bill Brandt, who had an English father and German mother. Brandt was born in Germany and grew up outside England in Switzerland and Paris, where here worked with surrealist photographer Man Ray. Mortimer affirms Brandt’s place in the canon of great photographers, while positioning the artist as anthropologist. This idea is reinforced in an essay by Yumiko Fukunishi who writes of Brandt, “…he was able to present the British social problem objectively and sometimes artistically, without any of the dilemmas which some English-born photographers such as Humphrey Spender had to face…Brandt was a ʻthreshold figureʼ […]because unlike Spender, who was from the English upper middle-class, he was a foreigner.”

It is also accessible, forgoing the dry, impenetrable academic posture that many authors on introductions to photography books adopt. It highlights that Brandt turned his camera to the social situation of the time, especially poverty and class, thereby further positioning Brandt as documentarian and even street photographer. 

This raises the divisive nature of street photography more generally. There’s an argument to be made that, owning to its ubiquity, it is on the verge of (if not having yet lapsed into) creative bankruptcy but equally there is a counter argument to be made that its true value only reveals itself in the future, when generations hence can look back at it as an historical snapshot of vernacular fashion, social conditions, technology and gives us the ability to see what has, and hasn’t, changed.

The opening photo of the book is startling. Not for its content, but its formal aspects.  Only the most courageous contemporary photographer would dare to include something like it in a portfolio today. It’s out of focus, grainy and blurred by its moving subject. Yes it’s a nearly 90 year old photo and yes Brandt was pushing his camera to its limits and he would have acknowledged its technical deficiencies but he was going for a mood and establishing a sense of place. And it works. The image is at the same time painterly, the background slipping almost into abstraction and evocative of a specific place. Fog is a motif Brandt will return to later in the book.  

Plate 1 - Fog over London’s river

According to the V&A museum, the image is a composite. This opens up a wider conversation about Brandt’s working methods, which are core of Fukunishi’s essay.

Brandt stated in the photography magazine Album (issue 2, 1970),  ”[A]lready two trends were  emerging: the poetic school, of which Man Ray and Edward Weston were the leaders, and the documentary moment-of-truth school. I was attracted to both, but when I returned to England in 1931, and for over ten years thereafter, I concentrated entirely on documentary work.”

However, given photography’s relative infancy as an art form at the time and the social movements that produced works such as George Orwell’s On Wigan Pier, the perception was that documentary photography accurately captured reality. This view influenced what photographers emphasised in their work, exemplified by photographs that Humphrey Spender and others produced as part of the Mass Observation project. 

What separated Brandt’s approach from his documentary photography peers, is that he was more interested in realism that reflected reality rather than documentary that captured reality precisely. 

This not only put him at odds with how photography was perceived at the time but also was an early example of a thread that has run through the history of photography. Namely, if a photographer recreates a scene in order to capture it with greater technical perfection or otherwise edits the image after taking it, should it still be considered authentic? Is fidelity to the real more important than evoking an idea or a sense time, place or emotion?

The second plate’s subject is deeply touristic, yet Brandt frames it in a way no tourist would. One hallmark of the tourist’s vacation snapshot, as true today with smartphones as it was in the era of film and digital point and shoot cameras, is that their composition inevitably has too much context and not enough subject (in an effort to show off the place). 

Plate 5 shows a street in Mayfair, an upmarket neighborhood in Central London that, save for the horse and carriage and vintage cars, probably looks exactly the same today as it did when the photograph was taken in 1930-whatever. 

The book is laid out in manner I appreciate, most of the images are portrait orientation and take up most of the page with one image per page, with a generous border and space for captions in English and French underneath. Landscape images are also presented one per page and ask the reader to rotate the book 90 degrees. I think this works more effectively than cramming two landscape images on to a single page by stacking them on top of each other or wasting half a page by having a single landscape image scaled to half the size of portrait images in the same book. This is not to take away from the intentional use of negative space that can be used with great effect to give images that demand it the room to breathe.

A general note on how Brandt composes his frames. He’s comfortable with elements that extend out of the frame, which is clearly a conscious choice and one that gives many of the more vernacular images a naturalistic feel. 

Also notable is Brandt’s use of depth of field. In this book as he later would with the Kodak police camera he used for his nudes, he often favours deep focus and will compromise on other aspects (shutter speed/motion blur and exposure) to attain it. He uses depth of field as a subtle storytelling tool, notably in this image on plate 6, which is one of the most well known images in the book and which David Campany featured in his book On Photographs, which prompted me to pick up The English at Home. He writes about this image, “…Brandt deliberately focused his camera on the shiny glass and silverware of the dining table. The parlourmaids behind are not so crisply rendered.”

It isn’t documented which camera Brandt used to photograph The English at Home, but what is known is that he was an early adopter of flash photography, which is what enabled him to work with small apertures and attain the control of the depth of field that gives many of the images in the book their narrative quality.   

Plate 21 offers another example of Brandt’s thoughtful use of depth of field.

Brandt purposefully included the passerby in the foreground (and likely not acknowledging the beggar, as she’s in motion), he trusts that the viewer will decipher that the sign in the upper right corner reads “Morning Coffee” despite it being cropped and poorly legible as a result of the exposure settings, he’s comfortable with the darkness in the upper left corner and decided that the subject (who is not centred) and their immediate context, a bakery with prices and description of their wares, none of which the blind subject can see, but we can, are the most important elements. 

I promised you more fog, and I keep my promises - another example of the street photography aspect of Brandt’s work.

And here is an example of the social element to his work, which highlights the contrast of how children socialised in the (then) poor East End of London and the (still) posh neighbourhood of Kensington.

As Brandt’s first major published work, The English at Home represents not only a document of its time but sets up many of the themes that would shape debates around photojournalism, documentary and street photography to the current day. As such, it is a worthy addition to the library of any photographer interested in these genres and the the discussions surrounding them.

Copies of the book appear to be hard to come by. I was lucky to find a reasonably price, if rather tatty, copy from Oxfam. 

I’ll leave you with the penultimate image of the book which is some ways is contemporary to both its time and ours.

To learn more about Bill Brandt:

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